When the conjunction “that” is necessary

It has become more and more common in written English to omit the conjunction “that” at the beginning of a dependent clause. Sometimes this is acceptable. Sometimes it is not. Consider this, from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal’s editorial on Rep. David Obey’s announcement that he is leaving Congress:

It’s not that we believe Obey or his principles—of which he has plenty—have outlived their usefulness. But there is an argument to be made that Congress should look at a little reinvention. And we’re not talking about simply switching parties. We’re talking about a change of culture.

As I was reading the words, “It’s not that we believe Obey or his principles…” my first thought was that the editors were saying that they don’t believe what Obey was saying about his reasons for leaving Congress. But that wasn’t what they meant. The phrase, “Obey and his principles” was not the object of “we [don’t] believe,” it was the subject of the dependent clause, “Obey and his principles have outlived their usefulness.” But that wasn’t clear until the reader had read the entire clause. The authors could have avoided that momentary confusion by putting the conjunction “that” before the words, “Obey and his principles”:

It’s not that we believe that Obey or his principles… have outlived their usefulness.

With the addition of “that,” the reader knows that “Obey” is not what is being disbelieved, but the idea that Obay has outlived his usefulness.

Competent writing spares the reader the experience of thinking that a sentence is saying one thing, and then being jolted by realizing that it’s saying something else and having to go back and start over again. Good writing doesn’t deceive the reader, it leads him step by step to the idea which the writer wants to convey.

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Rick Darby writes:

We need more of that.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 07, 2010 02:29 PM | Send

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